Short history of Raleigh

Sir Frank Bowden

Frank Bowden was a lawyer working in Hong Kong who had to return to England because of his ill health. ‘I arrive in England, troubled by an inactive liver, sleeplessness, bad circulation, varicose veins, rheumatism and general debility’. In 1870, a doctor in Harrogate suggested he might take up cycling to build up his strength so Frank bought a tricycle and set off to France to tour around. His health improved and he decided to try and encourage others to recognise the benefits of this new form of transport.

He also saw the business potential and whilst visiting Nottingham he invested in a small company on Raleigh Street which was run by three men, Woodhead, Angois and Ellis, and which was turning out about three cycles a week. Frank offered his business skills (and money) and The Raleigh Cycle Company was founded in 1888. An old lace factory on Russell Street was purchased as a new workshop, and when they outgrew that, a new factory was built on Faraday Road, increasing production to about 10 000 cycles a year by 1900.

World War 1

The First World War was good for business as many people went back to bicycles for transport and the government bought war models. Also, munitions were manufactured at the factory and many women entered the workforce for the first time in great numbers. These women worked around the clock on shifts. After the war, this changed the nature of work practice and many women carried on working in the factory on the assembly line.

Inter-war years

The company continued to expand after the war, but in 1921 it faced financial difficulties with foreign competition. The workforce agreed to a pay cut and to work longer hours. The outcome was recovery with the production of the All-steel bicycle and the Lifetime’s guarantee, sold at a competitive price of ten guineas (£10.50)

Sir Frank died in 1921 and was succeeded by his son, Harold, who had been earmarked for the job by being brought home from university in Cambridge to work in all the shops to get to know the workings of the factory. He was expected to work the same hours as the workers.

During this inter-war period, Raleigh began to buy up competitors such as Humber (1932) and later Hercules. This set a precedent for the future when dealing with competitors.

A new factory extension was built in 1922 and in the early 1930s the head Office on Lenton Boulevard was built by Nottingham architect T C Howitt (Also responsible for Home Brewery, Council House and Portland Building for University of Nottingham. The building is now called the Howitt Building and is still standing.

World War II

By 1936, preparations were being made for war and Raleigh started changing production to munitions once again, in particular, fuses. By the outbreak of war, manufacture of cycles had dropped to 55% of production. Most of these cycles went towards the war effort, for example, a folding cycle was designed for paratroopers.

During the war, Raleigh had its own fire service, ARP wardens etc.

After WWII 1945-1960

The company continued to grow, reaching the landmark figure of one million cycles in November 1951 and a new factory was added, opened by the Duke of Edinburgh in 1952. Through taking over rivals, growth continued and a further factory was built and opened in 1957 by Field Marshall Montgomery who arrived in full uniform standing in his jeep. Raleigh workers who had served under him during the war were invited to form a guard of honour, a very proud day for them and their families. 6000 employees and visitors were there to hear his speech. The site now covered 60 acres.

During this period, the original tubular fork crown cycle became Raleigh’s trademark, and the Raleigh Safety Cycle set the style for bicycles we still buy today. This included the Sturmey-Archer three speed gears and pneumatic tyres, with Raleigh all the while insisting on a high quality product. Less successful forays into motorcycles and cars produced the Raleighette, a three wheeler motorcycle and the Raleigh Severn, a three wheeler car with a top speed of 40mph.

The 1960s and 1970s

Cycling was changing from being a form of transport to a leisure pursuit and in an attempt to diversify into this market, Raleigh began producing hand built racing cycles and the RSW (Raleigh Small Wheel) range which included the Raleigh Shopper for the ladies and also a motorised version.

Probably the most well known and the saviour of Raleigh was the Chopper, which still has active fan clubs today. When Alan Oakley died, many enthusiasts turned up at his funeral and formed a guard of honour. There are many stories of how the chopper was designed and who was responsible, but one story suggests that Alan Oakley designed it on a piece of paper on a flight back form the USA where the craze was for wide handlebars, like Easy Rider.

1980s and 1990s

The Chopper was followed by the Grifter and in 1985, the Vectar. The latter had a computer and was radio fitted but never really took off, perhaps because of the expense. Mountain bikes were not particularly successful for Raleigh but a very popular cycle was the Pioneer launched in 1991.

’ – was the name given to the shop that produced toy bikes but also prams and pushchairs. At this time, prams were large, coach built and normally black or brown. Raleigh brought out small, very colourful prams and employees’ families were allowed to ‘road test’ them, attracting admiring glances from other parents!

From the 1970’s onwards Raleigh had begun to realise the importance of success in the world of competitive cycling, investing heavily in creating an ever improving team that competed in events across Europe. And in 1980 Joop Zoetemelk of Holland riding for TI Raleigh Creda won the Tour De France, completing the race in 109 hours, 19 minutes and 14 seconds.

But this period was also to see a steady decline in the company’s fortunes and a reduction in its workforce. Since the early 1970’s factories in other parts of the world had been making parts for Raleigh. By 1980 brake levers, cables and spokes were made elsewhere. After the BMX and the Burner boom of the early 80’s the company sold its iconic Head Office building on Lenton Boulevard to Nottingham City Council and in 1989 it sold off the Factory Number One site.

1990 – 2003

In 1990 the original Factory Number 1 building was demolished; and the area from Lenton Boulevard to Faraday Road was no longer occupied by Raleigh.

In 1997 parts of the Raleigh site were sold to The University of Nottingham for use as the new Jubilee Campus.

In May 1999, Mark Todd the Managing Director announced that ‘frame production here in Nottingham will cease. It really is a very small department in the company and has been the only one making parts here for around twenty five years. We have noticed a market preference for aluminium frames and as there isn’t the facility to make those at the factory we will have to gradually wind down the section. I suppose some people will view it as the end of an era, but this has been known about for some time and is a very small part of the work we do here. Assembly and painting will continue and we will also continue to control the design, specification and quality of the frames we use and of our final product’.

In 2003 the last remaining factory on Triumph Road was demolished; production moved overseas and head office relocated to Eastwood, Nottinghamshire.